How Cafe Rosetta became the nexus of Houghton County’s conflict over the COVID crisis

By: - March 9, 2021 5:44 am

Cafe Rosetta | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

This series is the product of a more than month-long investigation involving hundreds of documents, court proceedings, several days on the ground in the western Upper Peninsula, and interviews — both on and off the record — with over 30 sources in government, law enforcement, local residents and experts in extremism. The investigation began two days after the arrest of accused Capitol insurrectionist Karl Dresch of Calumet. The result is a look at the gradual radicalization of communities in Houghton County, from the tea party movement a decade ago to groups today mobilizing against diversity and embracing COVID and pro-Trump election conspiracies. That extremism, bolstered by a strong church network, boiled over several times last year into large protests with many concerned about violence in the future.

Sitting on the corner of Fifth Street and Scott Street in Calumet’s business district sits a nondescript building, the entrance of which is pushed back under the roof by about 15 feet, obscuring the view.

It stands in the shadows of looming large brick buildings created during the Upper Peninsula village’s heyday as a center of mining and lumber. It hardly looks like the flashpoint of angry gatherings, armed protests and verbal squabbles over coronavirus containment actions. 

This is Cafe Rosetta. 

The tiny restaurant, featuring a red-checkered floor in a triangular dining area, has become Houghton County’s most prominent rallying point against the Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer administration’s restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 over the last year. 

Supporters have flocked to the cafe not only to slurp on coffee and consume cooked onsite meals, but to thrust a finger in the eye of regulators by flouting mask mandates and dining indoors — even after the eatery had its food license suspended late last year for failing to follow pandemic orders. 

Cafe Rosetta | Michigan State Police photo

Many of those gathering in the recalcitrant cafe are members of the First Apostolic Lutheran Church, one of the largest religious bodies in Houghton County. 

This reporter visited the cafe at noon on Jan. 30, hoping to catch owner Amy Heikkinen. An unmasked employee behind the register said Heikkinen and her co-owner and brother, Jake, usually don’t work Saturdays. She took a written note from the reporter and promised to give it to the siblings. 

Neither owner has called or emailed in response to the request. Their attorney, David Kallman, who is based in Delta Township and represents several businesses fighting COVID orders, has also communicated with them about doing an interview with the Advance

For her part, Amy Heikkinen has not been afraid to talk to the media. She’s appeared on right-leaning media like Michigan Capitol Confidential; One America News Network (OAN), a favorite of former President Donald Trump; as well as local and statewide news outlets. 

With a well-crafted biography, Heikkinen has become a favorite of conservatives and anti-lockdown activists. As she tells it, nine years ago she was in an abusive relationship and living on welfare when she decided to take her children and leave her ex-husband. She then started the cafe, with financial backing of her brother Jake, who made his cash working North Dakota oil fields. Her biography plays up that she’s the mother of six, although Kallman confirms that three of the children live on their own. 

Using this compelling narrative, she and supporters have launched fundraising efforts in a private social media group and on two different crowdsourcing websites — GiveSendGo, which identifies itself as the “#1 Christian Crowdfunding Site,” which raised $69,591, and GoFundMe, which raised $6,377. The fundraising efforts seek $130,000 to offset fines and fees for continuing to operate the cafe without a license and in violation of Michigan law. 

Both sites prohibit fundraising to break laws or violate administrative rules or orders. Neither crowdfunding site responded to inquiries whether the fundraisers violated the terms of service. 

The Heikkinens and Cafe Rosetta had connected previously with Erik Kiilunen, a Houghton County businessman and former President Donald Trump supporter who created the All Business Is Essential Facebook movement in opposition to coronavirus restrictions in April. He has accompanied Heikkinen in several video interviews and has been extensively interviewed by Fox News about the situation. 

They are also members of First Apostolic Lutheran Church. 

Cafe Rosetta | Todd Heywood

Standing up

While the western U.P. was initially untouched by COVID-19 when it began to spread in Michigan in March 2020, that changed with the summer tourism season and a small influx of telecommuters looking for more scenic surroundings to ride out the pandemic. 

As Michiganders spent the early weeks of the pandemic in various stages of emergency restrictions, some residents, particularly those on the right, rebelled — with the full encouragement of Trump, who fired off anti-Whitmer tweets like, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” 

Then on April 15, thousands flooded the state Capitol as part of “Operation Gridlock,” snarling traffic throughout downtown Lansing. Some protesters got out of their cars and rallied on the front lawn of the Capitol building. The protest was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition’s Meshawn Maddock, who is now co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and backed by the DeVos family-funded Michigan Freedom Fund. 

In October, law enforcement revealed that those early Capitol protests gave birth to a more radical and violent movement in the state. The Wolverine Watchmen, a group that law enforcement called a militia, started making plans to kidnap and execute Whitmer in June for her coronavirus restrictions. An alternate plan was to take hostages in the Capitol and blow it up. Federal and state law enforcement broke up the plot last fall after those involved engaged in surveillance of her northern Michigan vacation property and took other actions in preparation for their conspiracy.

As cases and deaths began to fall, Whitmer relaxed many restrictions in northern Michigan before Memorial Day, when Michiganders typically start their summer ritual of vacationing up north.

But with the second wave, COVID cases crashed across Michigan and the rest of the country during the fall of 2020 bringing an even sharper spike than the spring. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was forced to issue another round of restrictions on restaurants, large group gatherings and more.

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2020/05/18/u-p-parts-of-northern-mich-will-be-back-in-business-before-memorial-day/

The announcement of new restrictions before Thanksgiving, like shutting down indoor dining again, didn’t sit well with many in Houghton County, including those who attend the First Apostolic Church. 

Heikkinen, citing the economic impact of complying with the new orders and a medical condition she says prohibits her from wearing a mask, refused to comply. Her refusal was met with actions by the local health authorities. When she ignored those, state officials got involved and the media took notice. With each government action, support and opposition for the renegade cafe grew, becoming a flashpoint in the once tight-knit community. 

Kiilunen became one of Heikkinen’s staunchest backers, acting as a communications manager. Like Cafe Rosetta patrons, Apostolic congregants don’t wear masks, he said. “And you know what? We don’t have higher rates of COVID. Isn’t that something?” 

But Kiilunen acknowledged that the virus has swept through the U.P. congregations, sickening entire families. His own mother and father were quite ill with coronavirus. They survived and they are in their 80s. He also said church members don’t bother with testing once one family member is sick.

“Why get tested?” he asked. “You’re sick already.”

As an emergency room physician, Dr. Sharon Stoll had a frontline view of the virus’s toll on the community. She had married into the church and noted that the strict patriarchal structure of church life played a role in how COVID cases were perceived in the community. 

“You see that kind of carried out in life, who bears the burden of having children and raising children,” said Stoll, who ran for the Houghton County Commission as a Democrat in 2020 and lost. “And even in the pandemic, I hear Erik [Kiilunen] saying, writing, we have 300 to 500 people at church every Sunday, no one’s been harmed; we’re all well.”

Stoll knew better. “I had women messaging me saying, ‘We’re not all well. Five people have died and many more are terribly sick’ and the women are hit harder because they were exhausted to begin with.”

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2020/11/15/dhhs-issues-covid-19-restrictions-ag-urges-local-officials-to-enforce-them/

Health officials’ attempts to control the spread of the virus through contact tracing was also rebuffed by the congregations. “It’s invasive and an invasion of privacy,” Kiilunen contended. 

Lynn Sutfin, DHHS spokeswoman, acknowledged the state has been aware of the inconsistency between reported cases of COVID and actual cases. 

As of Monday, DHHS reports that 2,149 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Houghton County. Forty-one residents had died of the disease. 

Kate Beer, the health officer for the Western Upper Peninsula District Health Department, said her agency is aware that their COVID-19 numbers are likely an undercount because some community members won’t participate in testing and contact tracing. 

“It makes our job very difficult,” she said. “We have to add more education in. We have to be patient. We have to keep being persistent with what we’re doing. We understand that our numbers are low and we just need to keep an eye out and be vigilant on it. And that’s where that message comes of, not shying away from telling people that we need to wear masks, that we need to wash our hands and we need to social distance.”

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2021/03/08/its-become-toxic-houghton-county-wrestles-with-its-past-trump-and-coronavirus/

Legislative fights

State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), who represents most of the U.P., tells the Advance that early in the pandemic, he supported coronavirus restrictions even though some of his constituents didn’t. 

“I think a lot of folks just felt like, ‘Why are we getting locked down? Obviously, there’s big problems in Detroit, New York. But why are we being faced with this? And why shouldn’t we continue on with business as usual until we know we shouldn’t?’” the senator said. “But there was a lot of us who say, ‘Well, but we don’t have all the equipment and things in place, so we ought to be cautious.’”

In April, McBroom and other lawmakers from northern Michigan advocated for travel restrictions to prevent the burgeoning COVID crisis in Southeast Michigan, particularly Wayne County, from reaching the U.P. — the “hot zone” as McBroom called it. However, he was displeased with the orders Whitmer issued. 

“But the way [the administration] issued the order is keeping people who live here from being able to go to their hunting camp on the weekend, a place that might even be closer to their place of work than their actual home,” he recalls telling Whitmer administration officials, whom he declined to identify, when they called to chastise him for failing to hail the measure. 

He called those April and May orders “a kind of clumsy rollout.” 

“As time wore on, and the U.P. still didn’t have a big surge or wave, it just was very frustrating to people to see their businesses closed up and see the big box stores rolling in the money, not being able to go see their loved ones. People got very upset and it kind of solidified that whole independent freedom spirit,” McBroom said. 

Like many of his constituents, McBroom does not support a mask mandate and has spoken out against it on the Senate floor. But he said he has no concerns about wearing a mask and does so. 

Although most of the Whitmer administration’s restrictions from November have been lifted, McBroom pushed back after the governor did not adopt his desired regional approach to coronavirus measures. In early February this year, he joined with colleagues in the GOP-dominated Senate to refuse to approve some of Whitmer’s executive appointments, like the state children’s ombudsman. They also slow-walked spending almost $6 billion in federal COVID aid that Trump approved back in December. 

The reason? Lawmakers needed more input on the Whitmer administration’s COVID orders. 

“Where is the balance at the bargaining table? It’s gone. It’s been abrogated, emasculated, taken away,” McBroom said in a fiery speech last month. “As I’ve said before, the answer is found in not one silver bullet, not a magic plan, not unilateralism. But the plan is for us to strive forward, staying true to the democratic process, staying true to hearing our constituents’ needs, bringing them forward as their duly elected representatives, having the debate, taking the votes, and deciding if it’s the right thing to do.”

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2021/02/03/republican-says-balance-of-power-has-been-emasculated-as-senate-rejects-another-5-whitmer-appointees/

COVID denialism and Trump

Resistance to coronavirus precautions had become ingrained in the community by the time the second wave struck. 

Cafe Rosetta owner Amy Heikkinen claimed health issues prevent her from wearing a mask, while some of her supporters question the established science of mask-wearing and the impact of the virus and its lethality. And some of those beliefs rely on deeper conspiracies. 

For Kiilunen, COVID can’t be separated from the 2020 election. He said the pandemic was “political. Meant to hurt Trump” in his reelection fight, a popular argument from Republicans.

He also said one of his businesses, Superior Polymer, lost $600,000 in income within two days of Whitmer’s shutdown order. He is an absent owner from that business, leaving day-to-day operations for his nephew, whom he declined to name. He also runs a manufacturing business called Neuvokas, which created a synthetic rebar called Gator Bar to replace iron ones in construction. 

“Until then, I was largely ignoring what was going on in the world, just doing our thing,” he said as sipped coffee in the dining area of the Houghton Super 8 Motel. “And so I took a deep dive into it. I came out of it and I said, ‘You know what? This is politically motivated. It’s garbage. It’s B.S.’”

He also argued the numbers of the sick and dead were inflated, taking his conspiracy theories to a local radio station and airing them. From that, he began raising money to support Michigan businesses and remove health restrictions, forming the group, All Business Is Essential. 

His initial plan was to purchase billboards throughout the state to counter the “propaganda” of the state government. He launched a GoFundMe fundraiser that garnered $36,547 in donations. 

When he was unable to purchase billboard space in metro Detroit, “because the state had bought up everything,” Kiilunen claims he hired a public relations firm to promote his views. The Alexandria, Va.-base firm Shirley and McVicker Public Affairs was well-known in the right-wing mediasphere having represented groups such as the National Rifle Association, the American Conservative Union, Tea Party Patriots and others. Their influence soon earned him airtime on various right-wing media outlets. 

Although Kiilunen has been highly critical of the government’s COVID response as a “socialist” plot to destroy America, his company in April 2020 received over $200,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans, part of federal relief plans. 

During a late January interview, Kiilunen regularly disputed scientific consensus on the effectiveness of masks to stop coronavirus’ spread. He claims, without evidence, that they don’t work because of the size of the virus and how ill-fitting some masks are.

The masks, he argues, are a move towards socialism. He contends it is a way to normalize government interference in the daily lives of Americans. A series of videos posted on TikTok on Jan. 5 shows him harassing a man who dared come near Cafe Rosetta with a mask on.

The goal of developing such a virus? To harm Trump’s popularity and elect Biden as president, Kiilunen said. He also is convinced the presidential election was “stolen” from Trump, an opinion unlikely to change. 

The internet, said extremist expert Heidi Beirich, has given people entree into many conspiracy theories, buttressed with misinformation or misinterpretation of data. 

“And a lot of the forums where people get ‘information’ have not done a good job of dealing with disinformation or have actually promoted more extremism the way their algorithms work, their ad feeds and so on…’’ said Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project on Hate and Extremism in Georgia. 

“And we saw like in anti-lockdown period, for example, you could have 300,000 likes or members of a group within days. So, we never dealt with, basically what it’s like information distortion on the levels that we have.’’

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2020/05/20/watchdog-group-anti-whitmer-protests-tied-to-out-of-state-conservative-outfits/

Cafe Rosetta at the center

The pro-Trump activism in Houghton County and right-wing resistance to COVID restrictions have plenty of overlap.

Cafe Rosetta and its supporters lashed out against health officials while continuing to operate without a food license in December and January. Fliers and social media images were distributed featuring Tanya Rule, the director of environmental health for the Western Upper Peninsula District Health Department. The images accuse her of being an “avowed socialist” and accuse her of undermining the rights of small business owners. 

Kiilunen accuses — with no evidence — Rule of being a hand-picked agent of Whitmer. 

Meme posted against Tanya Rule, the environmental health director for the Western Upper Peninsula District Health Department

Rule’s boss is Kate Beer, health officer at the Western Upper Peninsula District Health Department, who acknowledges that health officials have been a magnet for some residents’ anger. 

“She’s [Rule] added some security to her home, and has just been a little more cautious because of some of the threats that have been made,” said Beer.

Beer declined to allow Rule to do an interview for this story. 

The Heikkinen siblings, Jake and Amy, decided Cafe Rosetta would not adhere to the Nov. 15 DHHS epidemic order shuttering indoor dining and requiring mask-wearing for both patrons and employees. Under the orders, restaurants across the state were limited to take-out service or outdoor dining. 

With the extraordinarily brutal winters in the western U.P., outdoor dining was not an option. Amy Heikkinen claims she would not have been able to survive by offering takeout service alone. 

So she made the decision to defy the orders. 

As a result, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department hit her with warnings followed by cease and desist orders and fines. Heikkinen still refused to close her doors to indoor dining. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), which authorizes and approves all food licensing in the state, summarily suspended her food license on Dec. 2. 

Heikkinen was unfazed by the suspension and continued to remain open, even after an administrative law judge upheld the food license suspension. Attorneys representing MDARD filed a request for a temporary injunction on Dec. 29 prohibiting the cafe from continuing to operate. Ingham County Circuit Judge Wanda Stokes issued the temporary injunction on Dec. 30. 

 

After a finding by Stokes in the Ingham County Circuit Court that Heikkinen had willfully violated her court orders to close the business and stop serving food, Stokes fined her $7,500 for contempt of court. 

On Feb. 4, during another hearing about contempt for the court’s orders, Heikkinen assured the court she was following new DHHS guidance permitting indoor dining with masks and capacity restrictions.

She agreed to shutter for 15 days to comply with the temporary injunction the Judge issued. But on Feb. 5, Heikkinen gave an interview to the Keweenaw Report. She told the outlet she was undeterred by threats of jail time, and the report emphasized her defiance by noting the interview occurred over a breakfast burrito served inside Cafe Rosetta. 

In addition, an undercover Michigan State Police officer entered the business that day and ordered food. In his affidavit in a brief filed Tuesday seeking another contempt finding against Heikkinen, the officer noted no one was masked and there was no social distancing. 

Heikkinen was scheduled to appear in front of Stokes on Feb. 11 to answer to allegations she had ignored the temporary injunction and therefore should be held in contempt of court. But she didn’t show up. Stokes ordered Heikkinen to appear, in person in Ingham County, the next day. It was a 509-mile trip for her. 

Meanwhile, McBroom and state Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) had scheduled a coffee hour at Cafe Rosetta on Feb. 12, with the senator telling the Advance on Feb. 11 the cafe was still open. But later that day, McBroom said the event would be postponed, as Heikkinen was back in court.

On Feb. 12, a remorseful and masked Heikkinen did appear in person before Stokes in an Ingham County Circuit Court room to answer the contempt charges. 

“I really don’t have any valid excuse for staying open,” Heikkinen told Stokes in a sworn statement. She said Stokes’ restraining order and temporary injunction “didn’t sink in” until Feb. 6, when she shut down. She apologized for her conduct.

“I was afraid of losing my livelihood,” she said. 

Nonetheless, Stokes hit her with a $2,500 fine for contempt of court and ordered her to not open until MDARD had licensed her and the court dissolved the injunction against the cafe. 

On Thursday, local and state officials approved Heikkinen’s reopening plan. 

Based on the results of the joint inspection, WUPHD and MDARD have determined that if Café Rosetta follows the requirements of its Action Plan for MDHHS Emergency Order Covid-19 Compliance, implements and follows COVID-19 mitigation measures,” wrote Jennifer Holton, spokeswoman for MDARD, “and meets the requirements for ensuring public health and food safety under the Michigan Food Law and Michigan Modified Food Code, an imminent threat to public health no longer exists at the establishment.”

https://www.scribd.com/document/497741442/Motion-for-Contempt-and-Brief-in-Support-With-Exhibits-2021-02-09-1

 

The cafe cannot reopen until Stokes dissolves the preliminary injunction issued earlier this year. 

Kiilunen said he supported Heikkinen’s decision to shut down in the face of growing pressure from the courts. “They had her bent over,” he said. “What else are you going to do? I support whatever decisions she had to make.”

Cafe Rosetta’s battle with local and state officials also ignited a more ominous resistance in the community. 

Despite the court order, the cafe remained open. On Dec. 31, a group of supporters gathered at the restaurant. A Facebook video posted by Antrisha Marie Luoma, who describes herself as Amy Heikkinen’s “best friend” in videos posted on social media and is a fellow church member, told followers an arrest warrant for Heikkinen had been issued by the court, ginning up locals to gather. In Luoma’s written Facebook comments on the video, she corrected her claims to discuss the injunction rather than an arrest warrant. 

In an interview with the Advance, Kiilunen said the gathering was spontaneous. 

“Amy’s getting arrested,” he said of the messages he was receiving. “The small town rumor mill started, right?”

https://www.michiganadvance.com/2021/02/09/after-paying-7500-fine-u-p-eatery-hit-with-contempt-order-for-defying-covid-measure/

Many present expressed concern about Heikkinen being arrested and they were prepared to run interference, Kiilunen said. He said he jumped on a picnic table to address the crowd. 

“I said, ‘You just got to relax and let’s figure this out,’” he told the Advance in a late January interview. “But the reality is, what is a police officer going to do if he’s got to go through 150 people to go through and get somebody. Are they going to do it? Are going to think twice?”

Asked if the crowd would have blocked law enforcement, Kiilunen responded, “I would say law enforcement probably heard it [crowd members upset at a possible arrest]. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Video taken by Luoma of Kiilunen’s speech that day tells a very different story. Instead of calling on people to “relax,” he was calling for volunteers to stand guard at the cafe while it was open. That security measure would last until at least Jan. 7 when Heikkinen would plead her case before Stokes, hoping for the return of her food license and dissolution of the temporary order shuttering her business. 

In a follow up interview, Kiilunen dismissed the discrepancy between his account and the video of the speech. “I didn’t call for armed security,” he said. 

Judge Wanda Stokes presides over a Feb. 11 hearing involving Cafe Rosetta owner Amy Heikkinen and her attorney, David Kallman | Screenshot

Longtime Houghton County Sheriff Brian McLean responded that “we heard the verbiage and we actually saw the video. I think it was a lot of posturing. I know a lot of those people, most of those people and I wouldn’t have any qualms about walking up to any one of them and say: ‘Hey, look, you know, we’re here to do our job. We’ve got to do something.’ I know people get emotional and once they’re pushed to their corner, they’re not going to go any further than that. You’ll hear a lot of things but would it actually come to fruition? I really don’t think it would. I think we could be reasonable about it.”

Providing security for Heikkinen and other businesses that chose to operate in violation of health orders was not a new plan. Luoma posted a TikTok video on Dec. 21 offering her arsenal and ammunition to anyone who wanted to provide armed security for those businesses. 

On Dec. 31, a man, who remains unidentified, showed up outside the restaurant with a long gun slung over his shoulder. Michigan State Police took a photo, which became part of the complaint against Cafe Rosetta. Kiilunen said the man was not from the area, adding he asked the man not to carry the weapon. McLean, who is a Republican, confirmed the man’s presence and discounted the weapon’s appearance. 

Cafe Rosetta | Michigan State Police photo

“We did have the one guy that thought it necessary for him to stand there all day with a long gun over his shoulder, which in Michigan open carry is totally legal, but he didn’t threaten anybody,” McLean said. “I think in his mind, he probably thought that was cool. We don’t think it’s cool; it tends to make people very, very nervous.”

Donna Effinger runs the Copper Country Angel Mission just a block away from Cafe Rosetta. The mission provides free home goods, clothing and food, as well as assistance with utilities and housing for low-income residents — whose ranks have swelled during the pandemic recession. 

She said the community has taken to referring to the eatery as “the COVID Cafe,” to express disdain for the rabble-rousing attention the conflict with health authorities has brought to the village of 744 people.

“It’s definitely kind of put a — I don’t want to say a dark stain over Calumet — but when you have tourists or people from out of the area coming into town, and you have people standing up there with their guns — they’ve had several rallies, there’s people walking up and down the street and they’re up there with bullhorns and waving flags and hollering at people,” she said. “It breaks my heart because this isn’t what we’re all about up here.”

Stoll, the local physician, said Cafe Rosetta has caused divisions in the community and driven a deeper wedge into an already fracturing community. She referred to it as a cause celebre and indicated that many of her peers who had been regulars at the cafe no longer spent money there in response to the activism. But there are others, once the controversy exploded, became regulars. 

From a governance perspective, Houghton County Commission Vice Chair Tom Tikkanen said the protests at Cafe Rosetta are a “blip” in the history of the community and the county. He said while he supported the First Amendment right to protest, he drew the line at people bringing weapons to protests.

“You’re mixing up the message,” he said. “This is not a Second Amendment issue. Just leave the guns.”

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Todd A. Heywood
Todd A. Heywood

Todd Heywood is an award-winning journalist with over 30 years of experience. He's worked in print, online, radio and television. His reporting has been cited by the U.S. House of Representatives as well as in the United Nations reports on HIV. He's an avid vintage Star Wars collector and lives in Lansing with his three dogs.

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